Rights abuses often ‘tipping point’ for extremist recruitment, UN study finds

Quality education and exposure to different cultures identified as key preventive factors in African survey

Human rights abuses committed by security forces and economic deprivation are among the most important drivers of recruitment to extremist groups in Africa, a survey has found.

Researchers working for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) interviewed more than 1,000 active or recent militants across eight countries in Africa in the pioneering study.

Their report – Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement – is one of the biggest anywhere in the world on the motivations of militants, and comes against a background of increasing extremist violence across a swath of the continent.

Though deaths worldwide from terrorism have declined over the past five years, attacks in sub-Saharan Africa have more than doubled since 2016, and in 2021 they comprised almost half of the global total.

The Sahel region has been particularly badly hit, with Islamic militancy fuelling acute political instability, but violent extremism has also spread or worsened in other parts of the continent, such as Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has become the new global epicentre of violent extremism with 48% of global terrorism deaths in 2021. This … threatens to reverse hard-won development gains for generations to come,” said Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator.

The report calls for greater emphasis on prevention and lists dozens of factors that make individuals less likely to be drawn into extremism, including quality education, exposure to different cultures and parental attention when young.

“All else being equal, a one-point increase in the childhood happiness rating decreases the odds of voluntary recruitment by around 10%. A one-point increase in the parental involvement rating decreases the odds of voluntary recruitment by around 25%,” the report says.

Though it confirms findings of other similar surveys as well as much reporting of extremism around the world, the UNDP report is likely to have a greater impact due to its scale and the way researchers sought to isolate factors leading to radicalisation by comparing the responses of people involved in violence with those of others of similar age, background and life experiences who had not joined extremist groups.

The study focused on eight countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan – and found that a quarter of voluntary recruits to extremist organisations cited job opportunities as their reason for joining. Forty per cent said they were in urgent need of livelihoods at the time of recruitment.

Many militant groups pay salaries to fighters and almost all ensure basic needs of their members are met. They also offer status and protection.

In recent years, even Islamic State, long seen as the most extreme of factions active in sub-Saharan Africa, has made efforts to win community support and recruits through provision of basic services such as food distribution, administration of justice and rudimentary healthcare.

The strategy of co-opting and coercing local communities has helped IS extend its reach from north-east Nigeria across the Sahel region, with territory that now stretches across thousands of miles as far north as the Libyan border and as far south as parts of Benin and Ghana. Al-Shabaab have pursued a similar strategy in Somalia.

Few governments on the continent have been able to pursue comprehensive counter-terrorism strategies tackling the deeper roots of violent extremism, and most have relied on security services that are often brutal or clumsy. Successive offensives by government and regional forces, backed by US air power and specialists on the ground, have succeeded in inflicting tactical defeats on al-Shabaab but little enduring damage, for example.

A decade of intervention by French troops in Mali ended in ignominious withdrawal amid massive political instability and advances by extremist insurgents. Government forces in Mali, reinforced by Russian paramilitaries from the Wagner group since 2019, have been repeatedly accused of violence towards civilians.

Nirina Kiplagat, the report’s lead author, said nearly half of those interviewed by the UNDP cited a specific trigger event pushing them into extremism, with a striking 71% pointing to human rights abuse, often by state security forces, as “the tipping point”.

The report also concludes that extremists often have less exposure to other ethnic and religious groups, suggesting religious pluralism helps to mitigate violence.

More than half of the “control group” of interviewees who did not join groups claimed to have had friends from other religions growing up, but only 40% of voluntary recruits to extremist factions did so. In contrast, those who became extremists were considerably more inclined to express negative views about religious diversity.

Religion was given as a primary reason for joining by only 17%, with four of five recruits admitting to having limited knowledge of religious texts.

“When we look at religion, [it] has a conflicting dual element in the journey to extremism because on one hand it’s used as a vector for the mobilisation of grievances. And on the other, it also represents an important source of resilience. The role individual religious leaders can play can [be] very important. We need quality religious education,” Kiplagat said.

More than 500 women were interviewed for the study, revealing that very few had joined extremist groups voluntarily. About half said they had been heavily influenced by their families, especially their husbands. Kiplagat said this reflected roles within often conservative societies.

Currently, about 70% of the United Nations counter-terrorism budget is spent helping states build capacity to combat terrorism, often through expanding and equipping security services, compared with just 24% that goes to “addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism”.

Steiner said: “Security-driven counter-terrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective, yet investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are woefully inadequate. The social contract between states and citizens must be reinvigorated to tackle root causes of violent extremism.”


Jason Burke Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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